Pencils of Promise CEO Explains How to Succeed in Social Entrepreneurship

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March 30, 2016

Michael Dougherty is one out of 700. That's how many applicants Adam Braun, who founded Pencils of Promise in 2008, and the organization's board considered before they chose Michael to be CEO last year.

Pencils of Promise builds schools, trains teachers and funds scholarships in Laos, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Ghana. The organization has built 336 schools and served more than 33,000 students. Pencils of Promise relies on partners like CommonBond to achieve its mission. For every loan funded by CommonBond, we fund the education of a child in need.

Since joining Pencils of Promise in June, Michael has spent half of his time in the field, meeting with staff, students, parents, teachers and government officials. He recently discussed his career, what he looks for in new hires and the future of Pencils of Promise with CommonBond:

Why did you decide to join Pencils of Promise after a long career in education?

For 30 years, I've helped for-profit education companies design curriculum, train teachers and measure student outcomes. I've helped build books into best sellers, grow companies that educated millions and support teachers in 72 countries. I've happily poured my life energy into improving young lives with education. But, when I turned 50 a few years ago, I began to see my life's work differently. There's something about being in the third quarter of the game that sharpened my focus—about being a father and seeing our daughters leave the nest and grow into impassioned global citizens. About realizing that the world needs you to step up to the biggest, toughest problems. After turning 50, I kept asking myself: "When I am running out of time, where can my work matter the most?" I realized that my background and experience had put me in a position to make a lasting impact on children's lives in the developing world. 

Who has had the biggest influence on your career? Why?

Tom Tierney, founder of The Bridgespan Group, was the San Francisco office head for Bain & Co., where I worked following business school at Stanford. Tom was a guiding light in terms of shaping your career for maximum legacy impact. He broke the rules: initiating pro-bono client work to feed the souls of Bain's talented staff and later stepping away from Bain in the prime of his career to launch a nonprofit. The seed he planted in me 25 years ago broke ground when I was 50 and has come into full bloom at PoP.

What attributes and skills do you look for in new hires?

The No. 1 focus of my interviews is assessing whether a new hire can challenge me and add to our thinking. Our work demands self-assured, independent thinkers who can push in a collaborative way. When I was 25, the messages I remember in the workplace were: “Work hard. Build relationships. Be polite. Your turn will come. Yikes! Today the messages we send are: "Work smart. Find a better way. Be a force. Your turn to make a difference is now." I always imbed a subtle test for follow-up, which I use to differentiate top candidates: "Here's a question: I'm focused on now. What do you think?" After hearing the response, I invite the candidate to think it through further and get back to me if they have more to offer. Two out of three don't!

What career advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?

Be fearless. Our PoP staff is young, but they're a type of entrepreneurial, act now, worry later crowd. We are part NGO, part tech startup, part branding/design agency, and we've had such positive outcomes as an organization because everyone is scrappy, audacious and works tirelessly to bring our mission to life every day.

What are your top three priorities for Pencils of Promise this year?

First, we need the right education answer: that is, what moves the needle for a student to become proficient in literacy. We are building a pipeline of literally hundreds of micro innovations (classroom practices, tools, methods) that we will vet. For every 25 we research, we might pilot a few and scale one (the lucky one that has data evidence of efficacy). Second, 250 million kids in our world cannot read or write. We can solve that with technology in the classroom and do it in a cost-effective, individualized learning way. Last, I'm also committed to creating and maintaining a best-in-class workplace—for all of our global team members. PoP is already known for our mission, impact, branding, data innovation, growth, etc. We also want to be known for being an exceptional place to work because that will allow us to continue to have even more success in our programs in every country in which we work.

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